PETER FROST remembers the brave Irish women who played a key role in the declaration of the Irish Republic.

Winnie Carney

AS A watery dawn broke on Easter Monday 1916, Winnie Carney (above) entered the General Post Office (GPO) on O’Connell Street, along with her many armed republican comrades, men and women. Most of her comrades carried arms and ammunition. Carney carried a heavier load.

Carney was secretary and assistant to James Connolly, head of the Irish Citizen Army. She did carry her Webley revolver, but more importantly she carried a heavy typewriter.

Connolly (below), she knew, would need to send clear typed orders all over the city in the battle that was to come.


When Connolly was wounded, Carney refused to leave his side despite direct orders from Patrick Pearse and from Connolly himself.

Carney, alongside Elizabeth O’Farrell and Julia Gremen, only left the GPO with the rest of the rebels after their surrender.

After her capture, she was held in Kilmainham jail (below) and was then moved to Mountjoy prison.


Carney, alongside Helena Molony, Maria Prolz, Brigid Foley and Ellen O’Ryan and others were moved to an English prison at Aylesbury.

Sixty-nine other women were released from prison one week after the execution of the Rising’s leaders.

Women had played their part in every area of Dublin where the fighting took place, with just one exception.

At Boland’s Mill, Eamon de Valera defied the orders of Pearse and Connolly to allow female fighters into the garrison. He would confirm his anti-women prejudice in his many years as president of Ireland.

Early in the day, one of the best-known republican women, Constance Markievicz, shot a Royal Irish Constabulary member in the head, near St Stephen’s Green. Later the same day, she was sniping at British troops in the city centre.

Countess Constance was born to an aristocratic London family with a home in Co Sligo. She rejected society life and turned first to painting and then to politics. She married a man who claimed he was a Polish count.

During the great lockout organised by Jim Larkin in 1913 she’d run a soup kitchen from the Irish Transport and General Workers Union headquarters at Liberty Hall.

Connolly became a significant influence in the development of Markievicz’s political ideology.

She became a commissioned officer in Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army. At Easter 1916 she fought in St Stephen’s Green and then the College of Surgeons.


Markievicz was sentenced to death, commuted to life imprisonment because of her sex.

She protested that she just wanted to die with her comrades, who were being executed almost daily in the yard outside her cell in Kilmainham jail.

Later Markievicz would become the first woman to be elected to the Westminster Parliament, but she refused to take her seat.

She was also the first woman to be elected to and serve in Dail Eireann. She became the first female minister in any modern democracy, as minister for labour at the first meeting of the Dail in 1919.

Helena Moloney was among the soldiers who attacked the British headquarters at Dublin Castle.

British soldiers couldn’t understand what made dozens of women fight and even die for a free Ireland — female volunteers like Margaretta Keogh, one of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice alongside their many male comrades.

Prior to 1916, many women across Ireland had been involved in various organisations dedicated to the fight to win equal rights for women.

Many women, and not a few men, believed that when the battle for Irish independence was won, women’s rights and suffrage might be easier to achieve.

Women joined the struggle in organisations like the Irish Women’s Workers’ Union, Inghinidhe Na hEireann (Daughters of Ireland), the Irish Women’s Franchise League and Cumann na mBan (League of Women).

As the fight for a free Irish republic grew, culminating in the declaration of a republic by Padraig Pearse on Easter morning, many women inside the garrisons fought alongside the men.

Women had proved to be excellent at gathering vital intelligence out and about.

Many others carried despatches and moved arms from dumps across the city to insurgent strongholds.?

On the streets of Dublin squads of women marched in their dark green uniforms and slouch hats. Many had revolvers strapped to their sides.


One of the female revolutionaries, Margaret Skinnider, wrote in her book Doing My Bit for Ireland: “Whenever I was called down to carry a dispatch, I took off my uniform, put on my dress and hat and went out the side door of the college with my message. As soon as I returned, I slipped back into my uniform.”

Rose McNamara was in command of the 21-strong female battalion at the Marrowbone Lane Distillery.


After surrender, the women of the garrison could have evaded arrest but they marched down four-deep in uniform, along with the men.

Helena Molony, an actress and journalist who served alongside Dr Kathlenn Lynn at City Hall during Easter week and had smuggled guns to Ireland from England for the Rising, said: “I had an Irish tweed costume, with a Sam Browne belt. I had my own revolver and ammunition.”

When it became clear that the battle for the GPO was lost, Pearse selected a nurse, Elizabeth O’Farrell (below), to officially surrender to the British authorities.

Elizabeth o'farrel

O’Farrell had acted as a dispatch rider before and during the Rising, delivering orders and instructions to the outposts around Dublin.

She was one of three women, including Carney, who remained in the GPO until the very end.

She and her lifelong friend and fellow nurse Julia Grenan were caring for the wounded, including Connolly.

At 12.45pm on Saturday April 29, O’Farrell took a Red Cross insignia and a white flag and emerged into heavy fire on Moore Street beside the GPO to surrender to the British military.

British soldiers dragged her to Brigadier General William Lowe. Lowe sent her back to Pearse with a demand for unconditional surrender.

Pearse and O’Farrell finally surrendered to General Lowe. The battle for the GPO was over, but the battle for Irish freedom moved up a gear.

O’Farrell’s work wasn’t over. She dodged sniper fire and British checkpoints while criss-crossing the city convincing local Rising leaders that the decision to capitulate was genuine.

Cumann na mBan.jpg.opt827x459o0,0s827x459

Over 100 women (above) took part directly in the Rising. More than half were members of the republican organisation Cumann na mBan, committed to the use of force against the British occupation of Ireland as well as fighting for women’s equality. Both those struggles continue today.

This article first appeared in the Morning Star 23 April 2016.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s